SE Asia
Southeast Asia

Get to Know SE Asia: A Quick and Easy Guide!

During our planning for SE Asia, I knew we would experience a very different culture than we had in other places. Our itinerary included Singapore, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. It was to be a 32-day cruise with overnights in several ports.

As with any trip we undertake, I always do pre-trip research. But not being familiar with the eastern culture made this trip more intensive. My research includes “the must-see” hotspots of the town.   It also encompasses a crash course in a culture completely foreign to us. As part of traveling, it is important to learn about a destination’s culture and immerse yourself in it.

The Diverse Culture of SE Asia

Historically, this region has been influenced by Indian and Chinese cultures due to the trade routes of Indians and East Asians.

In a nutshell, the culture of SE Asia is a combination of history,  language, ethnicity, religion, and food. 11 countries make up the region we refer to as SE Asia. Those are:

  • Brunei
  • Burma (Myanmar)
  • Cambodia **
  • Timor-Leste
  • Indonesia, Laos
  • Malaysia
  • the Philippines
  • Singapore **
  • Thailand **
  • Vietnam **
  • Hong Kong **

Although several countries make up SE Asia, the culture in each country is different. This particular fact, I found odd. The climate and foliage, along with tribal and fishing traditions are similar from country to country. The main cultures of religion, food, dress, language and daily life are quite different. 

For the purposes of this article, I will discuss the culture and traditions of the countries that I visited (as indicated by ** above).


The main cultural inspiration in Cambodia is religion. Over 3000 years ago, sea merchants entering the Gulf of Thailand brought a unique culture.


Buddhism has existed in Cambodia since about the 5th century CE. 90% of the population in today’s Cambodia practice some version of Buddhism. Of the remaining 10%, only 1% are Christian with Islam. Atheism and highland tribal groups making up the rest. Less than 100,000 practice tribal customs, which play an integral part in most Cambodian’s daily life. (See below: daily life)


Cambodian dishes are influenced by the countries of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia, as well as by the region itself. There are some predominant differences in Cambodian food. They include such as fish sauce, stir-fry, rice noodles, and dipping sauces. These additions are influenced by Chinese culture.

Fish amok, a steamed fish curry,  is one of the national dishes of Cambodia.

Fish Amok
Fish Amok, A Khmer Cambodian Dish, is a Steamed Fish Curry

Religion is the most important aspect of Cambodian culture. The way a person dress has a significant impact as well. Fashion is based on ethnic and social class. You can identify a person’s ethnicity by observing what they are wearing.

The Krama identifies the Khmer people and is a checkered scarf with a variety of uses.

A Sampot is a long, rectangular garment worn on the lower body (Similar to what a westerner would use as a swimsuit cover-up- sarong style). It indicates the Hindu background that still has importance in Cambodian culture. The Sampot can be worn on the lower body with no covering on the upper body except for jewelry.

As time passed, the Sampot was replaced with a blouse, shirt, and trousers. The Sampot is still worn by royalty.

A Traditional Sampot Worn During the  Traditional Dance

Pendants are an important part of the dress. There are different pendants for different uses. Some are for protection from evil spirits, and some are meant to bring good luck.

For the most part, the people of Cambodia dress in a western style. The fashion described above is traditional clothing worn for the observance of special occasions.


Spoken by more than 90% of the population, Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. There are also 12 major languages recognized in the country. Khmer is similar to Thai and Chinese, but it is more difficult to read because many of the words are spelled differently. It is important to note also, that Khmer is not a tonal language. It relies on the emphasis of the last syllable in a word to indicate grammatical relationships.

Daily Life

Although there are only about 100,000 Khmer tribal people in Cambodia, many aspects of daily life are rooted in that ancient culture. The existence and influence of “spirits” are an example of this holdover culture. Such examples of the spirit world’s influence are:

  • The birth of a child is an exceptionally happy occasion. It is believed that the mother and child become susceptible to harmful spirits. If a mother dies during childbirth, it is thought that she becomes an evil spirit hovering over the family.
  • Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist; they make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. Among these phenomena are khmoc (ghosts), pret and besach (particularly nasty demons, the spirits of people who have died violent, untimely, or unnatural deaths), arak (evil spirits, usually female), neak ta (tutelary spirits residing in inanimate objects), mneang phteah (guardians of the house), meba (ancestral spirits), and mrenh kongveal (elf-like guardians of animals). All spirits must be shown proper respect, and, with the exception of the mneang phteah and mrenh kongveal, they can cause trouble ranging from mischief to serious life-threatening illnesses. An important way for living people to show respect for the spirits of the dead is to provide food for the spirits. If this food is not provided, the spirit can cause trouble for the offending person.


Belief in the spirit world is only one aspect of daily life in Cambodia. For the most part, the country is poverty-stricken and mere survival is the key to daily life. Spending time, as I did, in Cambodia, I witnessed hoards of trash everywhere, scams galore against tourists, and overall corruption. The average wage is about USD $50.00 per month, not enough for a family to survive. The expectation that all tourists are rich is engrained in the Cambodians from a young age and I don’t believe that people are nefarious when they try and manipulate for money. Instead, I believe that the Cambodians are just looking for help.

Notable Customs and Traditions

The head and feet of a person’s body play a prominent role in customs in Cambodia. For travelers, it’s essential  to know this.

The head is thought to contain a person’s soul, making it the most important part of a person’s body. It is forbidden to touch another’s head.

The feet are the lowest part of the body. It is very disrespectful to point to someone or touch them with your feet. When sleeping, your feet should not be pointing towards another person.

Greeting someone should be done by using the “sampeah” gesture. This is like a small bow from the waist with hands together as if in prayer. I enjoyed this custom a lot when I was in Cambodia. The simple bow felt very respectful.

A Sampeah Gesture is the Proper Way to Greet Another

A few other recognized customs are as follows:

  • When sitting, do not cross your legs but instead sit with your legs and feet straight down.
  • Get up before sunrise or you are considered to be a lazy person.
  • Close doors gently without slamming or it will be assumed that you are angry or upset.
  • Marriages, in many cases, are still arranged by families.
  • Do not make eye contact with a person who is older than you. The older person is considered superior and making eye contact is a sign of disrespect.


My favorite place to be, Singapore observes three values: openness, multiculturalism, and self-determination. It is the city where “East meets West”, “Gateway to Asia” and a “Garden city”. Also, it is the most progressive and modern country/city in SE Asia. The common theme in Singapore, whether it be architecture or the way of doing business has evolved into a combination of Asian and European culture and traditions.

Singapore is also known for its paved roads, manicured public parks, and spotless, completely litter-free streets. When we were there, we observed hourly barges with big nets scooping up trash or other debris on the Singapore River.


Based on the country’s diverse ethnicity, the most practiced religion is Buddhism. About 33% of people practice it. Christianity is the second most observed religion. Also, a smaller amount of followers practice Muslim, Taoism, Hinduism, and atheists. The government emphasizes respect for different faiths and personal beliefs.


Singapore is a country where food is important. Finding the best food can be considered a sub-culture or passion all its own. Hawkers selling food in the malls or on the streets are a big deal there. The cuisine is made up of roughly 74% Chinese, 13% ethnic Malay, 9% Indian, and 3% Eurasian. One can consider the food of Singapore to be a cultural fusion of sorts.


Singapore is heavily influenced by Western culture. The everyday dress is somewhat casual. Jeans, tee shirts, and athletic shoes are commonly worn.

The traditional clothing in Singapore is the Baju Kurung, worn by both men and women. The Baju is a long tunic-type top falling between the hips and knees. It is accompanied by a sarong with specific “folds” in the fabric. A long scarf thrown over the shoulder can be worn with this national costume.

Baju Kurung

The national language of Singapore is Malay. English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil are the four official languages in Singapore.  English is the primary language, especially for the population aged 50 and younger. The country has a policy that requires bilingual students to complete their education. Mandarin is the original language but most students select English as their second language.

Daily Life

The national flag of Singapore sums up the attitude and concept that govern the country. The stars depicted on the flag are democracy, peace, progress, justice, and equality.

The Flag of Singapore. The Stars Symbolize the mantra of the Country: Democracy, Peace, Progress, Justice, and Equality

Daily life in Singapore is multicultural. Each community maintains a unique way of life, based on its ethnicity. We took a city tour when we were in Singapore. Each community is almost like a city in its own right. The residents police each other. If someone doesn’t send their child to school, the residents address the issue with the family. If the appearance of someone’s home is not up to par, once again, the community steps in. One could say peer pressure is a huge equalizer. These distinct communities are all-inclusive. They cover all needs of the residents like shopping, schools, churches, post offices, salons, etc.

We also learned that all the property is owned by the government and is leased to individual families on a 99-year renewable lease. This ensures uniformity and harmonious life in that the rules are the same for everyone.  A large source of revenue for the country is the revenue from these leases.

Another large source of income for the country is monetary fines for infractions of the law. There are designated smoking areas, for example. If you are caught smoking outside of these areas, a fine of USD 1500.00 is assessed. Nighttime noise levels are enforced much the same way. There are many strict laws and some might find this to be too restrictive. The laws are the same for everyone and the residents stand strong on these rules, knowing they are ensured a certain lifestyle.

Singapore takes cleanliness and healthy living very seriously. For example, there is a 20% excise tax, based on the open market value, to bring a car into the country whether you are a foreigner or a resident. There is also a very long wait time to drive the vehicle once it is in the country. These practices are in place not only to control traffic but also air quality.

Life is not slow in Singapore. It is a fast-paced lifestyle with people scurrying from place to place. The country is a hub for banking and business in SE Asia. Many people are employed in these industries. The hospitality industry is another major source of employment.

Notable Customs and Traditions

Singapore’s local customs and cultures are a blend of influences. They include Chinese, Malay, Indians, and Europeans.

Some of the notable customs in Singapore are as follows:

  • While meeting a Singaporean make sure to shake hands with all, even when departing. A slight bow while shaking hands is considered respectful.
  • Take off the shoes before entering anyone’s house. Also, remember to take them off before visiting any temple or mosque.
  • Make sure never to point at someone or something with a finger, just raise your hand for indication.
  • Gender discrimination is an offense in Singapore; thus, do not disrespect anyone.
  • Tipping is not customary in Singapore. Most restaurants add a 10% service charge to the bill, in which case, tipping is generally discouraged. Tipping is also completely prohibited at Changi Airport.
  • Referring to middle-aged and elderly people as ‘Uncle’ or ‘Auntie’, is a sign of respect in Singapore.
  • While eating with chopsticks, do not stick them upright in the bowl. It is reminiscent of funeral rites and is considered bad luck.
  • Do not touch anyone’s head, as it is considered sacred by many. On the contrary, the feet are regarded as dirty, so do not point them directly at someone.


  • The Merlion is the national symbol or mascot of Singapore. The Merlion was first used in Singapore as the logo for the tourism board. Its name combines “mer”, meaning the sea, and “lion”. The fish body represents Singapore’s origin as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which means “sea town” in Javanese. The lion head represents Singapore’s original name—Singapura—meaning “lion city” or “kota singa”.


Merlion Statue, Singapore, Singapore City, Asia, Marina Bay – Singapore


Thailand has a unique culture. It possesses a strong influence on Indian culture and the customs of China.

Much of Thailand’s culture comes from the ethnic Thai people. One of the most important influences on culture in Thailand is Buddhism. the principles of Buddhism can be seen in everyday life. Hinduism has also made important contributions to Thai culture. The close link between Thailand and India can be observed in art, literature, and many Thai customs.

Local food, dances, music, celebrations, and beliefs have begun to play a more important role in Thai life. Thailand is known as the “Land of a Thousand Smiles”.


It seems that in Se Asia, many of the countries base a large part of their culture on religion. Thailand is no different with Buddhism being the cornerstone of the culture. 90% of the population is Buddhist. It is central with people going to a temple to pray for good health, good fortune, and wealth. They also seek life advice from monks living in temples.

Se Asia
One of the 40,000Temples in Thailand

Traditional Thai cuisine falls into four categories. 

Tom (boiled dishes)

Yam (spicy salads)

Tam (pounded foods),  

Gaeng (curries). 

Deep fries, stir-fries, and steamed dishes derived from Chinese cuisine. The cuisine is influenced by Cambodia, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. 

Five geographic regions define the cuisine based on border countries.

  • Bangkok
  • Central Thai
  • Isan
  • Northern Thai
  • Southern Thai

In addition to the regional cuisines, there is a separate category of royal cuisine. It focuses on the freshness of seasonal products and methods of preparation.


Everyday dress for residents is conservative. Typically, white or black pants are worn with long-sleeve shirts. Tourists or foreign nationals don’t need to dress this way.

For tourists conservative shorts and short sleeve shirts are acceptable. However, long sleeves and clothing below the knee are required when going into temples. This applies to both men and women. The climate is hot and humid in Thailand so from a comfort point of view, I would carry a sarong and a long sleeve shirt in my backpack.

Traditional dress in Thailand is quite elaborate.  It can be traced back to the Dvaravati Kingdom (6th-13th century) which was influenced by India. Chut Thai is the name given to traditional clothing and is translated as “Thai outfit”. Women’s outfits usually consist of a PHA Chung hang or a PHA Nung, a blouse, and a PHA biang. Men’s clothing is known as a Raj pattern costume, which includes a PHA Chung hang or pants, a shirt, optional knee-length white socks, and a PHA bang.


Chut Thai
Examples of Chut Thai for Women

The Chut Thai is further broken down into sub-categories for formal wear, special occasions, and weddings. There is also clothing that is reserved for royals. These outfits are gorgeous and all are made from the finest silk found in Thailand.


The official language of Thailand is Thai Thai. There are over 70 languages spoken in the country. The additional languages are regional and are broken down into areas that are on borders with other countries. Sixty languages are domestic languages. The remaining languages, which include English are dictated by businesses, ex-pats, and tourists.

English is spoken and understood in tourist destinations, specifically Bangkok

Daily Life

Up until the 1960s, most people lived in villages. Most of those people have now relocated to urban areas. Electricity and running water are now the norms. Many of the jobs are low-skill. With the dramatic improvement of the economy in Thailand, the demand for skilled workers has increased exponentially.

Although the country has become more modernized, still daily life is rooted in ancient traditions. For example, in opening a new business, the owner before doing so will consult an astrologer. This is based on the traditions of Buddhism.

I was surprised at how “western” Thailand is. Moderate-sized towns outside Bangkok seem to have adopted western culture. The areas that are considered “very rural” were what I expected all of Thailand to be. In the larger areas, cafes, movie theaters and modern stores including Big Box stores were present. One thing that amazed me was modern Thailand. There were wet markets, tuk-tuks, and other things that were reminiscent of a less modern time.

Notable Customs and Traditions

1) Don’t Touch The Head

It is important that you don’t touch a Thai person’s head or ruffle their hair. If you do accidentally touch a person’s head, please apologize immediately. In Thailand, the head is considered the sacred part of the body and is not to be touched without permission.

2) Take Off Your Shoes, Always!
In Thailand, the feet are the furthest removed away from the head and as such are the lowest part of the body physically and spiritually. Shoes must be taken off upon entering someone’s home, sometimes at businesses, and most certainly when visiting temples.

3) Keeping Your Cool
Raising your voice is unacceptable in Thailand, and is considered an act of losing control. You certainly won’t achieve anything by becoming aggressive or loud. Being jai yen yen (cool heart) instead of jai rawn (hot heart) is always the best way to handle any situation.

4) Ducking Down When Walking Between Two People
You’ll see the majority of Thais duck down slightly when passing in front of two people engaged in conversation. It’s a polite gesture of respect to acknowledge the interruption. The same gesture applies if you walk past a person and block their vision for even a split second.

5) Don’t Point!
Pointing is a no-no in Thailand. Your Thai friends won’t take offense if you point when joking around, as they will understand that as a foreigner you may point instinctively. However, don’t point at monks or pictures of any of the Royal Family, and as a general rule don’t point at people to make reference to them. If you need to point someone out, instead of extending your finger, bend your hand downwards with your fingers leaning toward the floor and your palm facing upward.

The Proper Way to Greet Someone in Thailand
6.) In both formal and informal situations, Thai people greet each other with the word ‘sawadee’ followed by ‘kah’ for females and ‘kraap’ (soft r) for males. It is normal to refer to someone of a perceived higher status by the title ‘Khun’ (Mr/Ms) followed by their first name.
7.) In an international context, a handshake is an acceptable greeting. However, a male may only shake a female’s hand if she extends it to him first. 
Thailand Fun Facts:
  •  Thailand was actually known as Siam until 1939 (and again from 1945 to 1949). Remember the movie “The King and I”? Yul Brenner played the king of Siam. 
  •  Siamese cats are native to Thailand.
  • In Thailand, it is illegal to leave your house without underwear on.
  • Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice.
  •  Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, much like England.
  • Thai brothers Eng & Chang Bunker inspired the term “Siamese twins” and were joined at the chest. They died in 1873.
  • Bangkok’s real name: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
  •  Around ninety percent of Thai people are Buddhist.
  •  Muay Thai boxing, Thailand’s national sport, is known as “the art of eight limbs”.
  • It is illegal to step on any Thai currency.
  •  Thai people must always keep their heads lower than that of anyone older or more important than them.
  •  It is illegal to drive shirtless in Thailand.
  • Thailand was voted the world’s fifth friendliest country by Rough Guides readers.
  •  A Thai woman lived for 33 days & nights in a glass room full of scorpions, setting a new world record.
  • There are over 40,000 temples in Thailand of which 272 are considered royal temples. 


It’s amazing how countries within a region can all share certain characteristics yet be so different. Vietnam is not an exception to this observation. Unique characteristics of the Vietnamese culture include ancestor veneration and worship, respect for community and family values, and manual labor religious beliefs. Held sacred are cultural symbols that include four holy animals: Dragons, Turtles, Phoenix, and Unicorns.

The culture of Vietnam is one of the oldest in the world with documentation back 4000 years. In recent studies, it has been revealed that the Vietnamese culture developed parallel to China, contrary to previous perceptions. There were several years that the French occupied Vietnam. That period is reflected in some of the more modern architecture.


Religion in Vietnam is a mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. It is known in Vietnamese as the Tam Giao or “triple religion”. As the country has modernized, Catholicism is now a recognized and practiced religion. As a result of Confucianism, filial piety is prevalent: the worship of ancestors. The worship of parents and deceased ancestors demonstrates respect for the family unit and elders in society. Most homes and businesses in Vietnam display an ancestor altar.

SE Asia
Ancestor Altars are Found in Most Homes and Businesses in Vietnam

Vietnamese food is defined by three regions: north, south, and central. The ingredients are fresh and healthy and focus on less oil and the use of fresh vegetables. Rice is eaten at all meals with soy sauce, fish sauce, mint, and basil being popular ingredients. Dishes that feature noodles include beef, chicken, fish, and seafood as accompaniments.

Fresh Vegatables, Noodles and Rice are the Focus of Vietamese Food

Vietnam is a country of mixed ethnicities. Clothing is a direct reflection of this culture. The clothing of one group is quite different from that of another and adds vibrant color to the atmosphere of the country. Each of the 54 tribes of Vietnam has its traditional costume. These costumes have changed through the years.

Traditional Vietnamese Clothing
Everyday Clothing in Vietnam

Some of the traditional costumes are the Áo Giao Lĩnh ( a cross collared robe worn by men), the Áo Tứ Thân ( a four-part dress worn by women), Áo Cánh (worn by peasants of the north), and the Áo Bà Ba (worn by peasants of the south).


Spoken by over 70 million people in Vietnam, Vietnamese is the official national language. There are 110 officially recognized dialects and languages. Because of the former French occupation of the country, some older Vietnamese also speak French. English is spoken in some tourist areas. My pre-trip research had indicated that English was very rare and when we arrived, we found that to be quite accurate. Because of the density of the cities, we opted for organized tours thinking it would be difficult to navigate our way in a non-English-speaking country. This turned out to be a good move.

Daily Life

In Vietnam, about three-quarters of Vietnamese live in the country. These people have to work very hard for their living. Many families grow rice or fruit trees, others raise livestock. Men and women have to get up very early in the morning to get to the field.  Daily life in the city is like the country areas, both men and women go to work. The markets open at about 6 am. Grandparents often take care of the child at home or they have to go to daycare centers. Adults work from 7 am to 5:30 pm. They work all day to support their families. Many families live in small apartments or government housing. The family is the basis of Vietnamese life. It is common practice for three generations or even four to live in one home. Both lives in the city and country are quite fast.

After the Vietnam Conflict, 95% of the people were illiterate. As a remedy to this, the government stresses education and has made it available to the entire country. Children living in cities go to school 6 days a week. The testing to move from primary to secondary school is very rigorous. Along with the normal curriculum, children are taught obedience and respect to their grandparents and parents as well as relatives and teachers. It is difficult for the children living in rural areas to attend school as they are needed to work on family farms.

Notable Customs and Traditions

As with each country, some customs and traditions are followed. Although SE Asian countries all bear some similarities, Vietnam has customs and traditions which are unique and separate from its neighbors.

Families and or/clans (dòng họ) are the most important social and cultural units. you might say that the “What About Me?” is as foreign to the Vietnamese people as their language is to those of us who speak English. Members of a clan are all blood-related and often live together in what is referred to as “long houses”.

Although young people now have the freedom to choose their own husband/wife, traditional wedding rituals are still observed and performed.

Traditional customs are still observed during a funeral. The body is washed with fragrant water and then dressed in traditional funeral attire. Burial is favored over cremation.

Other Customs and Traditions:

  • Men and women can not touch hands unless they are husband and wife so Vietnamese people don’t hug when meeting. They say ” Xin Chao” or handshake between men.
  • People in the city talk gently and quietly and people who come from the countryside or from the sea talk pretty loudly. They work on the farm or ocean and they got to talk even louder than the wind or the waves.
  • Burning votive papers which are in the form of houses, clothes, fake money, cars, and motorbikes. They represent gifts for their ancestors. After being burnt, a little wine is sprinkled upon the ashes so that the spirits can ascend to heaven and bring these gifts to the ancestors who are thought to then use them.
  • According to the Vietnamese, Than Tai ( God of Wealth) is a sort of “benefactor” to bring fortune into a business.
  • When spring is around the corner, many Vietnamese go to the pagodas and temples to pray for health, peace, and happiness.
  • The Vietnamese New Year (Tet) takes place from the first day of the first month of the Lunar calendar (around late January or early February) for at least three days. It is a joyful family reunion full of smiles and blessings to express filial piety, family bonds, and the desire for a coming year full of happiness, prosperity, and goodness.
Huge Celebrations and Parades are Customary During the Lunar New Year in Vietnam
Hong Kong

Hong Kong culture is a mixture of the traditional Han Cantonese ethnic culture of southeastern China along with British and Western culture. Hong Kongers are being influenced by the culture of the people from the Chinese mainland. Their culture mixes Confucian and British ethics. The culture of Hong Kong is considered by many to be one of the most successful cultures on the planet. Although the city is crowded and busy, the lifestyle focuses on healthy living and wealth.

The culture of Hong Kong has its roots in mainland China. Everyday behavior, demeanor, and attitudes are quite different. Hong Kongers often smile more, seem happier, are more polite, and are more considerate in public than those living in mainland China.


Due to Hong Kong’s diverse ethnic makeup of nationalities and cultures, there is huge a diversity of religions and philosophical beliefs. The majority of Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese people practice a variety of religions including Taoism. The percentage of people who call themselves Buddhist is about 22%. The percentage who call themselves Christian is about 12%. About 2 to 3% are Muslim. About 22% are not religious.


The cuisine of Hong Kong is somewhat of a mixed bag. While the main cuisine is Cantonese, Chinese non-Cantonese and European fare are also favored. The preferred ingredients are:

  • Century egg
  • Salted duck egg
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Shiitake
  • Kai-lan
  • Red Bean
  • Hoisin Sauce
  • Chinese sausage
  • Dried shrimp
  • Dried Scallop
  • Jujube
  • Lotus seed


As with many SE Asian countries, eating is an important part of the culture. Not only does the Hong Konger’s diet include healthy foods but eating is an important aspect of social life. “Eating comes first” is a widely expected part of the culture. That being said, Hong Kongers typically eat five times per day. Their portions are much smaller than international standards making this practice more sustainable. Main courses often include copious amounts of carbohydrates such as rice and noodles (mein) and dumplings.


As cosmopolitan as Hong Kong has become, many people still prefer the traditional dress referred to as cheongsam. It is a long-length dress style for women and men. The qipao refers to a more figure-hugging version designed just for women. With its signature short sleeves, mandarin collar, side slits, impeccable tailoring, and embroidered fabrics, the qipao is known for showcasing a woman’s curves. The cheongsam is the most often worn traditional dress in Hong Kong.


Less often worn or reserved for special occasions are the Hanfu, the Tang Suit, and the Zhongshan Suit (formal attire for men).

Everyday dress in Hong Kong leans toward western culture. The residents are very style conscious about clothing being modest. In the evening, the dress is more formal with women wearing cocktail dresses and men wearing tailored suits. The business culture requires conservative western style suits for both men and women.


English and Cantonese are the official languages of Hong Kong. They speak Cantonese though they might also speak other Chinese languages and dialects. About 54% speak English. About 95 percent of Hong Kongers speak Cantonese. About 49 percent can speak Mandarin which is the official language of China. About 90 percent of Hong Kongers speak Cantonese at home.

Daily Life

Daily life for Hong Kongers is extremely busy. These are motivated people who thrive on hectic schedules. Most businesses, including banks, don’t open until 10 am. The typical person wakes up at about 8 am, eats breakfast at home, and stays at work until after 7 pm.


The cost of living is very high so most young people live at home until they marry. The roles of men and women in the home are reminiscent of years ago in the States with the woman taking care of all domestic things and the man working outside of the home. A young man will not marry until he can provide a home separate from his family for his bride.

Notable Customs and Traditions
  • Shake hands with everyone — men, women, and children — upon meeting and leaving. Note that Hong Kong Chinese handshakes may be less firm than Western handshakes.
  • Higher-ranking persons are introduced before those of lower rank. An older person comes before a younger person and a woman before a man. Family members are greeted in order of age, oldest first and youngest last.
  • It is polite to inquire about a person’s health or activities upon greeting.
  • Hong Kong Chinese may stand close when talking, however, they are reserved and uncomfortable with body contact. Do not hug, kiss, or pat people on the back.
  • Winking at someone is considered a very rude gesture.
  • Request your bill by making a writing motion with your hand.
  • To beckon someone, extend your arm, palm down, and make a scratching motion with your fingers.
  • Never point with your index finger. This is used only for animals. If you point, do it with your hand open.
  • Tea is the customary beverage for all occasions. Your teacup will be refilled continually. Leave your cup full if you are finished. Chinese find adding sugar and cream to tea a very strange Western habit. Place the teapot lid upside down (or open if attached) to signal the waiter for more tea.
  • Avoid giving white or red flowers (white is a symbol of mourning, red is a symbol of blood); clocks are associated with death, but watches are suitable gifts.
  • Hong Kong Chinese are very superstitious; mentioning failure, poverty or death offends them.

Final Impressions: SE Asian Culture

We spent about a month in Se Asia traveling to the five countries showcased above. It was our first experience with Eastern Culture. Pre-trip research had us prepared for the differences to some extent. What surprised us the most was although there are distinct similarities between the countries in this region, each was unique in its way. In ways, we had not expected. We were very surprised by the distinct differences in social classes not only within a country but between countries. Although I am unable to substantiate this with research, the people of Thailand for example, look down socially on the Cambodians.

Of the countries we visited, Singapore was the most cosmopolitan and westernized. So much so, that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what we saw in Se Asia.

The biggest common denominator was the attitude of the people we encountered. No matter their socioeconomic status, we found the people to be inviting, proud, and peace-seeking. The region as a whole is steeped in tradition and the historical significance of their culture plays a major role in daily living. The respect between generations and for the family is palpable.

Having traveled to many countries and regions, this particular trip remains one of our favorites. Will we go back? Probably. If you have not traveled to this area, I believe, should you decide to, that it will also be a trip that becomes one of your favorites as well.

Until next time, friends, remember “To Travel is to Live!”


Culture in Thailand


Vietnamese Culture


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